Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Arabic Classes at the Egyptian Embassy

In mid-May feeling somewhat bored after completing the writing component of my semester classes, I was looking for something to do with my suddenly lightened schedule. So I tried to enroll in an online class only to find out that registration had closed the previous day. What a bummer! So I went online to the Korea-4-expats site to see what was interesting and available around Seoul. Humph! There are just too many festivals in Korea - flower-festival-this and kimchi-festival-that - and they all pretty much have the same purpose, to entertain people on a very superficial level but not really "teach" anything meaningful. Well, that's my egghead opinion anyway.

What I like experiencing is something common, even ho-hum-everyday, but it should be either cultural or offer some kind of learning value - maybe a pansori performance, lectures on Korea, plays or ballets or Korean dance performances, a photography display, volunteering experience with elderly or a children's home, watching people on the street, even walking through open-air marketplaces or up a mountain - basically things of anthropological interest attract me. Well, it was my lucky day for listed under "things to do" was an offer of Free Arabic Classes for 8 consecutive Tuesdays. Right up my alley! Of course I cleared my Tuesday evenings (and opted to forego the regular Tuesday night Royal Asiatic Society lectures), downloaded a script of the Arabic alphabet (gibberish then, readable now) and showed up at the Egyptian embassy on time, ready to learn!

I have to say the learning style was very intense with the philosophy "sink or swim". I dog-paddled. But dog-paddling was very meaningful and the cultural knowledge I got from the class was phenomenal. To give a few examples, a religious meaning of "Mo-ses" is derived from the Arabic words for tree and water because Moses was found between the trees/bushes/rushes and the water. Koran is a derivative of to read. The word beautiful or attractive (which seems to be only used for women while men are primarily referred to as intelligent - hmm) stems from female camel. (This might come across as offensive in our modern world where Culture subsumes Nature, but the buried cultural beauty must be considered!) In fact, Arabic has two names for female camel and the other is similar in sound to 낙타, which our teacher speculates might be the only Arabic word borrowed into Korean, and that name when used in an adjective form in Arabic means elegant, which is also applied to women.

And then for a bit of cultural relativism. The root of administration or administer in Arabic is to carry as in to carry the people, while in English the root is to care for or attend to others; these etymologies shows how the origin of administration was seen in reference to serving the multitude under its respective offices (my opinion, at least in the west, is that most administrations have taken on a heirarchical role in society and though the administrative offices are set up to care for the people, there is power involved and a desire to keep that power or control over the people, but then language is dynamic and ever changing.). As in all languages, ethnocentrism exists and in Arabic the Middle Sea is what is on western maps as the Meditarranean Sea. (People of the US arrogantly refer to themselves as Americans while in fact Canadians, Guatemalans and Peruvians could technically call themselves that as they live on one of the American continents. And then there's Korea that has the on-going debate with Japan over the East Sea vs. the name of the Sea of Japan, a current very sticky issue.) It's obvous in learning Arabic that the religious and social cultures are so intimate with the language - and I love the cultural applications! The Sapir-Whorf Theory proved once again. And understanding the cultural forces affecting the language have made Arabic so alive and exciting!

One last word, though, has me scratching my head. It's the Arabic word for Venice, sounding very much like boondocks. Wow! Now I have to look into the origin of the term boondocks because it's possible that Venice as an ancient thriving export city on the Mediterranean, and very distant from the Arabic speaking countries, might have been the indirect catalyst for the borrowing of the Arabic term boondocks into English in reference to the distance involved in reaching a distant city or place ... or maybe that connotation of being distant and far-removed from one's self came later or was even borrowed from another language.

Anyway, exciting class. 20 or more showed up the first night, but it was rather a quick introduction to a totally new writing system and a complex one at that, so by week #5 the number of people had dwindled to about a core of 8-9. Tonight, our last night I'm not sure how many are in attendance as I couldn't make it because of my prearranged summer vacation plans. However, I know the core of us who stuck out the majority of the classes really REALLY loved the language and cultural exposure.

Not only did we acquire basic knowledge on sentence construction, insights into etymology and root derivatives, as well as a tiny intro to variations between the different Arabic dialects, we even got to try some of the delectable Egyptian desserts ... hahaha, our teacher (a very busy diplomat) was tied up one night in a meeting and then Seoul p.m. traffic so arrived late, but he brought us gastronomical compensation - traditional Egyptian desserts! How nice! And yum!

Well, the eight weeks have flown by and tonight is the last night of the class. How sad. Anyway, although I probably won't ever study this language to reach competency, I don't want to forget the alphabet, the basic greetings and the tiny core of words and syntax that I've picked up. Since 22 countries in the world speak some form of Arabic, even the basic knowledge that I've acquired will give me a better world view. It's certainly given me a lot of cultural understanding on a culture I knew relatively nothing about before :) And if there is ever another offer for a class in Arabic through the Egyptian embassy, I'd say "Go for it!" Mohammad, our teacher, taught this class once before (last October I think), and as a Korean in the class put it this time around, "He's a great cultural ambassador."

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